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Recording Recipes: Techniques For Dealing With Roaming Musicians

Methods to help elucidate the musical nuances and to add color and interest

By Curtis Settino July 20, 1980

Street musicians, Maynardville, Tennessee. 1935. Photo: Ben Shahn. This exclusive article is provided by

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The goal when dealing with roaming musicians is to create and capture unique volume, position and/or timbre changes in the performance you’re recording.

It’s a roundabout approach to orchestration and dynamics.

The following methods can work in a variety of recording situations (four-track and beyond) and are designed for vocals and hand-held acoustic instruments.

Volume Changing
Did you know? An automated volume control technique was used with Elvis Presley when he first started recording?

An assistant engineer would stand behind him, clutch his shoulders, and physically pull him away from or push him closer to the microphone depending on Elvis’ volume.

In those days, this technique was crucial since everything was usually going down live. No one had the ability to fix it in the mix.

But even if you’ve got the space to isolate a vocalist, or other volatile sound sources, onto a single track, this approach could save you some mixing hassle.

Also, too often people record the various parts of a piece of music without a clear picture of the desired end result.

So when it comes time to mix, they’re left with the chore of juggling those parts within the mix and taming volume fluctuations within the parts.

When you prepare to record a song, try writing down the song’s structure in a linear form before you start. This is generally referred to as a “chart”.

You don’t have to know how to read or write music to do this. I find using different shapes to represent the different sections of the piece helpful.

You can even use magic markers and crayons if you want. Then, once you have the entire piece laid out, choose which sections will serve what purposes (i.e., this will be the loud part, this will be the catchy part, etc.).

Once you have a clear picture of how you’d like the song to unfold before the listeners’ ears, you can address all your performances to suit this plan.

Back to roaming musicians… Like the voice of the young Elvis Presley, some sounds are difficult to control volume wise.

Or they take on a considerably different timbre when played quietly. A lot of percussion and wind instruments fall into this category. Luckily though, many of them are hand-held.

For this recipe, you’ll need one microphone, a vocalist or “carryable” instrument, and a song in need of track-embedded dynamic performances that require no adjustments during mixing.

1) Set up the microphone so there’s room to roam away from it either directly in reverse or off to the side (each has a different effect). Don’t forget to lose the clomping shoes if you’re on wood or cement floors.

2) Get a level on the vocal or instrument up close at a moderate to loud level. Mark the spot on the floor with tape.

With vocalists it may be better to hang something from the ceiling at head height as a marker for the close up position – just like when people hang tennis balls in the garage so that they hit the windshield when the vehicle is pulling in and has reached the perfect depth without crunching the trash cans.
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